Federal judge upholds Stolen Valor Act

Thursday, January 6, 2011

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The Stolen Valor Act, which makes it a federal crime to make false statements about military medals, does not violate the First Amendment, a federal judge in Virginia has ruled.

U.S. District Judge James P. Jones reasoned that the law applies only to “outright lies” made knowingly with an intent to deceive.

On Jan. 3, Jones rejected a motion by Ronnie Robbins, former revenue commissioner of Dickenson County, Va., to throw out an indictment against him. Robbins allegedly claimed in campaign materials that he had received the Vietnam Service Medal and the Vietnam Campaign Medal. Prosecutors acknowledge that Robbins was on active duty in the U.S. Army in the early 1970s, but contend that he never served overseas or saw combat. A grand jury indicted Robbins for violating the Stolen Valor Act.

Jones' motion to quash the indictment was on First Amendment grounds. He argued that the law infringes upon freedom of speech. Two federal courts — a district court in Colorado and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — have indeed ruled that the Stolen Valor Act is unconstitutional.

The Stolen Valor Act, passed in 2006, “Prohibits falsely representing oneself as having been awarded any decoration or medal authorized by Congress for the Armed Forces or any of the service medals or badges,” according to the Congressional Research Service.

The district court in Colorado ruled in July 2010 in U.S. v. Strandlof that the law violated the First Amendment. (The case is now on appeal before the 10th Circuit.) In August 2010, a divided panel of the 9th Circuit in U.S. v. Alvarez reached a similar conclusion. Both courts held that the government did not have a compelling interest in prohibiting all false statements.

In the Robbins case, Judge Jones wrote that he disagreed with those decisions. False statements are a recognized category of unprotected speech, he said, quoting a passage from the U.S. Supreme Court defamation ruling in Gertz v. Robert Welch Co. (1974): “[T]here is no constitutional value in false statements of fact.” Jones reasoned that both defamation and fraud reflect the legal system’s lack of protection for false statements.

Recognizing that the Supreme Court has protected some types of false statements, Jones cited a statement in Gertz that said “the First Amendment requires that we protect some falsehood in order to protect speech that matters.” But Jones said false statements about military medals are not “speech that matters.” He interpreted the Stolen Valor Act as applying only to false statements made knowingly with intent to deceive.

“Read with these limitations, only outright lies, not ideas, are punishable,” he wrote.

Jones’ decision heightens the expectation that one of these Stolen Valor Act cases will reach the U.S. Supreme Court for an ultimate determination on the fate of the federal law.

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